I remember when only six people knew my e-mail address and every note was cherished correspondence to be read, re-read, and thoughtfully replied to. But those days are gone and e-mail has become a victim of its own success: transformed from a way to exchange notes between old friends to a foundational communication platform and an integral aspect of modern business.
The clearest evidence of this transformation is that the volume of email we receive has reached staggering proportions: I know many people who get over 100 legitimate messages a day. If this torrent of correspondence isn’t effectively managed it becomes a drain on our time, a dilution of our focus, and a threat to our productivity.
The usual admonitions (refrain from “reply all”, keep responses short, etc.) are about keeping the problem from getting worse. Instead, I’d like to talk about how to make things better and recommend a system I’ve been using for several years called “Inbox Zero,” which starts with a basic axiom:
“Your inbox is not a to-do list;
it is for unprocessed e-mail,
and its default state is EMPTY.”
Inbox Zero has three cardinal rules:
Don’t allow e-mail to interrupt your train of thought. Turn off instant notification and instead process your e-mail in bursts at times that are convenient for you. That might be every 30 minutes or it might be once a day, depending on your situation.
Process your email, don’t check it. Any message, once read, must be processed, which means making one of six possible choices. Consider them in this order:
- Delete. Learn to do this without remorse and it will change your life. Copied on something that doesn’t concern you? DELETE. Seven e-mails in a chain that’s already resolved by the time you read them? DELETE (x7).
- Archive. Anything that does not require action, but needs to be saved gets dumped into a single folder labeled “Archive.” I got rid of my byzantine folder structure when Outlook introduced indexed search. Now that you can search all your folders at once, no matter where you’ve stashed something you can easily find it. If you’re a person who believes in folders this may sound chaotic, but try it for two weeks: use search instead of your folder hierarchy to find archived e-mails. I tried it and never went back, and now when I want to archive something it takes one second to drag it into a single Archive folder, not 30 seconds to think about where it best “belongs”.
- Delegate. When I delegate by forwarding an e-mail (and then deleting the original), I bcc myself and use a rule to automatically forward the bcc to a “waiting” folder. Periodically, I check to see if I need to light a fire under someone and to delete what’s been closed.
- Reply. If I can answer an e-mail in less than two minutes, I “reply” right away. (If a lengthy, thoughtful response is warranted—or I need to do some research first—see choice #6, “Do.”) Once I’ve responded, I delete the original, which is now embedded with my response in “Sent Items”. One copy is enough.
- Defer. This option is to be avoided as much as possible. When I get an e-mail I can’t even read in two minutes, I drag it to a “defer” folder. I get back to deferred e-mails when everything else is processed and put them in another category by day’s end. (Note: I actually have a “long-term defer” folder as well, for stuff that isn’t time sensitive.)
- Do. Once I’ve gotten this far, I actually have to do something about the message. I determine the action and write it down in a notebook. If I ultimately need to reply to the original message it goes into an “in work” folder. Otherwise, I delete or archive it.
Process to zero (i.e. empty your inbox). Obviously, you have to be flexible, but the goal, especially at the end of the day, is to have zero messages in your inbox.
Note: This post was originally written for an internal company blog to help expose more people to the excellent “Inbox Zero” talk and series of articles created in 2007 by the Bay Area’s, Merlin Mann.